“Wildfire season” seems to be a thing of the past for drought-stricken California, with fires now raging throughout the year.
There have already been nearly 850 wildfires this year — 70 percent above the average, according to CAL FIRE data. High temperatures and low precipitation, both related to climate change, have dried out forests and scrublands across the western United States, allowing fires to spread faster and farther than usual, any time during the year.
“Since 2000 we’ve been seeing larger and more damaging fires,” Daniel Berlant, chief of public information for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), told NBC News. “What we’re seeing now is that the rain is starting later and stopping much earlier. The fires are burning at explosive speed because the vegetation is so dry and that allows them to get much larger.”
In February, residents were shocked by a fire that destroyed 60 homes at the base of the Sierra Nevada range, in eastern California.
“Three years before, I had 12 feet of snow at my house on that exact date in February,” volunteer Fire Chief Dale Schmidt told the San Jose Mercury News. “Four years ago, they would have had a couple to 3 feet of snow where the fire started.”
Snowpack is a key source of water for California, and it is now at a historic low. In fact, even the ponds where firefighters fill up their helicopters have run dry.
“Because of the drought we are having to locate other water sources for our aerial program. Some of the holding ponds in central California are just not there anymore. So we have to plan prior to the fires where the helicopters can go to fill up,” Mike Mohler, a fire captain with CAL FIRE, told NBC News.
This all fits in with the scientific community’s consensus on climate change. The U.S Global Change Research Program — headed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and backed by the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, NASA, and the Smithsonian Institute among others — says there will be “more frequent heat waves, extreme precipitation, wildfires, and water scarcity” due to climate change.
Firefighters are seeing the climate change effects firsthand. The drought and higher temperatures are not only increasing the likelihood of fires, they are making fires worse, experts say.
“Five years ago without a drought in California you would still get wildland fires. But the vegetation wouldn’t burn as quickly. Now there’s zero moisture and you get explosive fire growth,” Mohler said.
The increased numbers and severity of fires is also taking a toll on the state’s finances. On top of the $209 million included in the state budget for firefighting, Gov. Jerry Brown has authorized an additional $113.7 million in emergency funds this fiscal year, which ends in June.